Much has been said about the good eye that art gallerists must possess. That is, the ability to recognise and identify artists and their potential. Then, there’s the entrepreneurial acumen in promoting the vision of artists to the art-buying public. Less, however, has been said about the heart.
In 2006, respected British newspaper The Guardian ran a story on high-flying women gallerists. The article quoted Maureen Paley, one of London’s leading art gallerists, who said: “Art is one of the last unregulated markets. There are no male gatekeepers and you are not confined to traditional alpha-male values. That makes it very attractive to a certain type of woman with a strong personality, who wouldn’t fit into a cookie-cutter working environment, like investment banking.”
It went on to cite the nurturing quality of women as a significant advantage for women gallerists. After all, it takes a certain instinct to understand the sensitivities of artists, and many women simply excel at it.
You could say that Jazz Chong, like many women gallerists, has it all. With her warm and gregarious personality, she draws people in easily. There’s an easy-going charm that is instantly likable.
This year, her gallery Ode To Art celebrates its tenth anniversary. Back when Chong was hunting for shop space, she went with her gut, planting it in Raffles City, one of the busiest shopping malls in the city. Hers continues to be one among the few art galleries located within Singapore’s gleaming shopping malls. It is also strategically situated. Guests at two of Singapore’s top hotels are bound to pass by her gallery on the way back from their city jaunts.
Other than being one of the larger galleries in Singapore, Ode To Art also stands out among the crop for its art consultancy work. The list of clients includes DBS Singapore and China, Reflections at Keppel Bay and Banyan Tree Macau.
That said, there have been changes in the art scene over the decade. The public appreciation for art is heating up. Supply too is rising to meet the demand, thanks to the growing number of art galleries. “I think it’s getting very exciting. There are a lot of good exhibitions coming up. For instance, Gillman Barracks has several good galleries. There are more art fairs now too,” Chong says.
And with rising affluence, people are willing to invest in art. She adds, “As for collectors, they are more eager to find out about the artists. They do a lot more research before they get a piece of art. They are more open to other genres and styles of art that they may not be accustomed to. It has a lot to do with the Internet and the availability of information. It’s very transparent.”
While she acknowledges that competition is inevitable with an expanding art scene, in the end it is something she welcomes. After all, a piece of art either resonates with the viewer or not. Often, it is a case of love at first sight. That connection to a piece of art alone makes it unique and personal.
It goes without saying that Chong is a collector herself, and naturally is a fan of the artists she represents. Among the works in her personal collection are sculptures by Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero, and those by Taiwanese sculptor Li Chen, as well as marble works by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei.
There is nothing stuffy about the works of art at Ode To Art. Instead, the space exudes a palpable sense of vibrancy, perhaps denoted by the gallery itself. Bright and contemporary, it is a well-designed space with layers of moveable panels for the artworks.
The artists her gallery represents form a roll call of established and emerging artists. In addition to works by artists such as Botero and Salvador Dali, many are contemporary artworks by artists from Asia and Europe. The prices range from S$3000 for works by emerging artists to “close to a million for monumental sculptures by Botero”.
The works range from the colourful ones by Dedy Sufriadi to the restrained approach seen in lithographs by Tadao Ando and realism in paintings by Lee Jung Woong. The gallery is, simply put, a showcase of many tastes, which one might suspect are hers. When asked about that, she says simply, “That is quite difficult to answer. You change all the time. The more you talk to artists, the more you’ll appreciate that it’s beyond aesthetics. It’s conceptual and intuitive.”
Working with artists, according to her, is more than just a handshake. She values the firm friendships (“Lim Tze Peng is like a grandfather to me,” she says of the 92-year-old Singapore Cultural Medallion winner) she has developed with artists the gallery represents. New perceptions in one’s understanding of art come with the territory too.
Recognising how she has benefited from these close interactions, she felt that collectors too would gain from insights into the artists’ works. Last year, Ode To Art hosted a series of art lectures by curator and art historian Jeffrey Say. Open to all, the talks were popular among collectors and enthusiasts. And instead of keeping the experience exclusive to attendees, the gallery has made the full videos available on YouTube. Chong is driven to provide content. She aims to hold more of such lectures at the gallery, with an emphasis on Singapore art in 2014.
Last year, Ode To Art also hosted a social initiative with National Library Board. Children were encouraged to work hand in hand with Indonesian artist Dedy Sufriadi on large, colourful artworks. It is an unusual and accessible way of bridging the world of professional art with the general public from a young age.
When asked if there’s any particular art movement she loves, she replies earnestly, “I’m very open to art. I thought I like one, but I love that one too. I wouldn’t say that it’s changed. Rather, it has evolved. You become more open-minded, such as to those of your own culture. Ink work tradition, for example, has a very philosophical spirit. It’s contemporary but traditional, enlightening and soul searching.”
It has been said that art is a reflection of how one sees the world. For someone whose first love was composing music, the proficient piano and keyboard player says, “Art is like a passion, it’s love.” Coming from that perspective, and buoyed with a self-assured perceptiveness, she is set to bring even more dynamism and accessibility to Singapore’s art scene.
Words by Rossara Jamil, photos by Albert Tan.
This story was first published in Gallery & Studio Vol 1, 2014.